Sergio Cobucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western Django was such a phenomenal hit that it begat dozens of unofficial sequels — only one involving the personnel of the original film, which means that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained falls well within the tradition of filmmakers reconfiguring the character for their own means. Though he’s endlessly respectful of his picture’s namesake, adopting its distinctive theme song and casting (with a lovely “friendly participation of” credit) original Django Franco Nero, he is, as usual, up to more than friendly borrowing, or creating in-jokes for his fellow cinephiles. The Spaghetti Western, as a subgenre, wasn’t immune from occasional silliness. But these were big, extravagant, and often emotional vehicles — they dealt in mythology and iconography, and Django Unchained finds Tarantino digging in to that element of the form with relish.
His Django (played with quiet power by Jamie Foxx) is a runaway slave, bought and freed by a German dentist, Dr. King Schultz. Schultz is played by Tarantino’s new muse, Inglourious Basterds Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, who gets a giggle in his first entrance and never ceases delighting the audience. They’re truly an inspired match, this filmmaker and actor; Waltz loves delivering this flourish-filled, curlicue-cadenced dialogue nearly as much as Tarantino loves writing it. The good Dr. Schultz is anti-slavery, but at his convenience — he initially purchases Django to help him track down the Brittle Brothers, a trio of outlaws that Django can identify. You see, Schultz is a bounty hunter, delivering “wanted dead or alive” types, usually in the former condition, for handsome rewards. “Like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business,” he explains to Django, who turns out to be an ace shot. The men become partners.
The newly freed slave has a mission — to make enough money to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (the luminous Kerry Washington), who was separated from him and sold. The German Schultz can’t believe the moniker of Django’s wife, and tells him the story of her namesake’s rescue in German mythology. “Does the hero save her?” Django asks. “Spectacularly so,” Schultz assures him. “He walks through hellfire, because Broomhilda is worth it.” And in that scene, Tarantino is writing the check his movie must eventually cash — which it does, spectacularly.
But he is also tipping us off that his narrative allegiances aren’t solely pledged to the Spaghetti Western — as usual, the entirety of written and oral storytelling, fact and fiction, is fodder for the filmmaker’s fertile imagination. He’s not just calling up one kind of film; look closely and you’ll see the footprints of everything from Mandingo to Boss Nigger to Blazing Saddles. The latter is most explicitly called up in a very funny bit of left-field humor that scorchingly roasts the solemnity of a band of particularly ineffectual Klansman; much of the humor in the picture’s second half is provided by Samuel L. Jackson, who takes the old “Uncle Tom” character and plays it first for laughs (which stick in the throat), then as a hard-edged psychological profile of a vile man defined by his own self-loathing.
This is not to say that Tarantino’s film treats the prickly central subject of slavery as a laugh riot. There is a scene of “Mandingo fighting” about halfway through which takes the wind right out of an audience; it’s the most uncomfortable I’ve been watching one of his films since the ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs (a scene, incidentally, with roots in the original Django). And even the pure action scenes have an additional kick — there is something visceral and powerful in the sight of Foxx going to work on an old enemy with a bullwhip. Tarantino is so good at shooting talk that we doesn’t always get credit for how good he is at shooting action, but there is a shoot-out here that is as good as John Woo in his glory days, and the last couple of action beats are as tight and well-executed as any in recent memory. (Unfortunately, one of them comes during yet another ill-conceived Tarantino acting appearance, which is, as in Pulp Fiction, the film’s only major flaw. The director’s attempt at an Australian accent is so putrid, I didn’t realize he was doing one until another, better actor joined in.)
What’s most remarkable about Django Unchained is how skillfully Tarantino navigates the shaky ground between muddy Western oater, blaxpoitation-style shoot-‘em-up, earnest love story, and honest-to-God socio-political commentary. The film’s extended dinner sequence has a slowly-boiling, uneasy tension reminiscent of the Basterds bar scene, but more cleanly executed — the tempo shifts are more effective, housed as they are within a Leonardo DiCaprio monologue about phrenology that’s a bravura bit of Tarantino wordsmithing. (DiCaprio’s cheerfully brutish work is chilling.) As the filmmaker careens out of that calm into a climax of blood-on-the-walls extravagance, one can only marvel and the control and precision of his latest effort. It is ambitious, and lengthy, yet free of the self-indulgence that made Basterds and the Kill Bill films more taxing sits than his boisterous and exuberant early pictures. The movie moves, with crispness and intelligence, arriving at the most purely satisfying conclusion we could possibly ask for. Audiences are going to eat that last reel up. I know I did.
Django Unchained is out Christmas Day in wide release.